Liberalism has triumphed, both domestically and internationally. Although some families and communities (such as the Amish) attempt to escape modern life, doing so is impossible for all but the most dedicated. For most Christians in most places, living means living with liberalism.
Christians face equivalent if somewhat different temptations and difficulties in other social systems, irrespective of political ideology or economic order. At heart, Christianity poses a radical challenge to the appropriateness of every human action and institution. “Do not love the world or the things in the world,” wrote the Apostle John in his first epistle:
If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever (1 John 2: 15-17, ESV).
With its attributes of capitalism, individualism, and democracy, liberalism is not exempt from scrutiny. The institutions of liberalism are imperfect, but so are the institutions of illiberal systems. Indeed, many of the perceived, and oft-criticized, features of liberalism really are aspects of modernity. All modern systems have moved from rural to urban, for instance. Anti-liberal totalitarian states have been most dedicated to weakening the family and creating a communal mass man.
Christian discipleship is no easier in illiberal systems, even those formally dedicated to preserving Christian values as in authoritarian traditionalist regimes, formally allied with an established church. The natural human condition, in both Christian theology and historical experience, is not one of virtue. “None is righteous, no, not one,” Paul wrote in his letter to the Roman church (Romans 3: 10, ESV). This explains the necessity of a transcendent plan of redemption. In more restrictive systems, there may be fewer overt temptations, but also fewer opportunities to exercise virtue by choosing the right course.
Given imperfect choices, Christians would best embrace freedom as the political objective most consistent with the dignity of the human person, who stands as an individual, morally responsible for his or her actions, before God. Just as moral accountability ultimately falls on the individual, so should legal responsibility.
Government cannot address the human heart
The obvious question for Christians then is: How to live godly lives in a society in which everyone is free to reject Christ in every sphere? In the end, Christians must rely, first, on God and secondly on each other. Although they should participate in politics, as one of many human venues in which to be salt and light, they should not see government as a means of promoting their faith.
Of course, even a liberal order does not mean no order: none but the most thorough-going anarchist is against all restraints on freedom. However, the state must never be seen as a substitute for or even an adjunct to the church. Rather, government provides the overall social framework within which Christians as individuals and in community with one another walk in faith.
The temptation to rely on the state is strong, of course, given both the public character and the sheer variety and quantity of sin in open, liberal societies. Yet combating sin is not an appropriate role of government. Although the state can proscribe specific un-virtuous or un-Christian acts, it cannot make people virtuous, let alone turn them into Christians. Government cannot address problems of the human heart, which remain the central concern of Christianity.
In fact, in the United States, the onetime cultural consensus eroded during an era of strict laws against homosexuality, pornography, adultery, and even fornication. The end of this consensus led to changes in the law. In short, as more people viewed sexual mores as a matter of taste than as a question of right and wrong, the moral underpinnings of the laws collapsed. They first were left largely un-enforced or only arbitrarily enforced, and eventually were repealed. The loss of virtue fatally undermined the laws supposedly promoting virtue, not the other way around.
Forcing virtue on the masses?
Even if in theory government could make us better, in practice it is unlikely to do so. Attempting to forcibly make people virtuous would make society itself less virtuous in three important ways.
- Individuals would lose the opportunity to exercise virtue. They would not face the same set of temptations and be forced to choose between good and evil. In this dilemma we see the paradox of Christianity: a God of love creates man and provides a means for his redemption, but allows him to choose to do evil.
- To vest government with primary responsibility for promoting virtue shortchanges other institutions, like the family and church, sapping their vitality. Private social institutions find it easier to lean on the power of coercion than to lead by example, persuade, and solve problems. This phenomenon helps explain the expansion of the welfare state, as government has increasingly taken over the role of meeting important human needs.
- Making government a moral enforcer encourages abuse by majorities or influential minorities that gain power. If one thing is certain in life, it is that man is sinful. And the effect of sin is magnified by the exercise of coercive power. As Lord Acton famously observed, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Government is more likely to impair than improve virtue: expanding state power increases the ability of sinful human beings to do ill far more than it enhances their ability to do good. It doesn’t matter if those in power start with the best of intentions. Imperfect sinful beings believing themselves to be acting on behalf of the Lord remain imperfect sinful beings.
Indeed, Christ warned against a human attempt to uproot weeds among wheat: “lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them.” (Matthew 13: 29, ESV) The final harvest must be left to God.
Truth should not be decided by political majority
There’s another fundamental issue. Government today is a civil institution in a pluralistic society. Never mind what the United States or Massachusetts Bay Colony once was. There is no reason in principle why Christians are entitled to use the political institution which they share with their non-believing neighbors to promote their faith, or even values derived from their faith.
The very importance of one’s life philosophy is why it should be beyond the reach of government. Christians believe that there is objective truth, but that belief, let alone belief in the particular objective truth, is not shared by many—almost certainly a majority—of those around them. To enshrine Christian truth as law would violate the right of conscience of others.
The point is not to endorse relativism, to deny the existence of truth. But where the very essence of truth is disputed, it should not be determined by a majority (or concentrated minority) in the political process. Even Christians disagree about fundamental doctrines: the meaning of communion, the truth of predestination, the universality of any particular church. The concept of a neutral public square is fraught with difficulty, since many secularists seek to legislate their philosophy. Nevertheless, a society-wide compact to seek the broadest moral foundations for public legislation is more likely to leave space for Christians to advocate the truth.
The fact that government can do little to make us better does not mean that there is nothing it should do. Public officials should adopt as their maxim “first, do no harm.” For instance, government policy has exacerbated community and moral breakdowns by penalizing marriage and thrift.
Moreover, the state has spent years attempting to expunge not only religious practices but also religious values from the public square. In many instances, we would be better off morally if government simply left people alone.
Leave intra-personal morality beyond the state
There are times, of course, when coercion is absolutely necessary—most importantly, to enforce an inter-personal moral code governing the relations of one to another. Sanctions against crimes such as murder, enforcement of contracts and property ownership, and prohibition of fraud are obvious examples. In these cases law is necessary not to promote virtue, but to defend the rights of some from the harmful actions of others.
Very different, however, are attempts to mandate virtue, which reflects a standard of intra-personal morality. As such, it is an area that lies largely beyond the reach of state power.
That doesn’t mean it is unimportant, of course. Rather, the very importance of soul-molding makes the role of non-governmental institutions, particularly the family and church, so much more important. Indeed, one of the chief responsibilities of Christians in a free society is to work through these other institutions to make it a virtuous society.
Obviously, not every issue can be so cleanly cut. Few behaviors have no impact on others. Although pornography can be viewed entirely privately, it often has public aspects—advertising in public places, display in stores, and encouragement of misbehavior by others. Similarly, while drug use primarily concerns the individual, family members, friends, and others may be affected as well.
In these areas Christians can legitimately argue for regulation, but in the public arena they should discuss civic consequences rather than biblical values. Even if God condemns drug use (I see no evidence that use, in contrast to abuse, is sinful, the same standard as for alcohol), that does not mean it should be illegal. Rather, Christians, like their unbelieving neighbors, should weigh the social consequences of both drug use and drug prohibition, before making a prudential decision as to what policy is best for the polyglot national community which America has become.
Christians need to use secular tools
Recognizing that politics is a poor means of building a Christian moral order should result not in resignation, but in greater activity elsewhere. It should go without saying, but deserves reaffirmation, that the ultimate responsibility for sin is personal. Individuals will stand before God in judgment; in the nearer term they will stand before their neighbors and be judged, silently, perhaps, but no less searchingly. Modeling Christian behavior in our lives likely is far more important than calling the cops as a mechanism to encourage virtue among those in our world.
Equally important is living the Christian faith in family, church, and faith-oriented organizations. It is not easy to escape the world’s influence, but it is not necessary to join the Amish in opting out of much of the modern world in order to limit the ubiquity of the liberal order. Tightly-knit families, strong churches, and committed religious groups all can act as a godly medium through which the world’s imperfect light—as opposed to Christ’s perfect light—is refracted. Home-schooling, Christian private education, a parent staying at home, small groups at church, good youth programs, accountability friendships, and more can play a role. Not all are possible for every family and none guarantee an easy walk for a Christian through a society that all too often is licentious as well as liberal. But then, taking the narrow path will never be easy in any system.
Preserving personal and family purity is not enough for a Christian. We are to evangelize and be salt and light. Doing so should have a transformative impact on the surrounding society.
If it does not, it brings into question the reality of our faith.
That so many Americans say they are Christians, yet so many social outcomes run contrary to Christian values, suggests that believers either are fewer than claimed or do little to affect the culture around them.
Transformation requires engagement. One aspect is negative, bringing economic and social pressure against moral ingrates—say, purveyors of gangster rap. But Christians also have a positive role. There is much good in today’s Christian subculture: art, literature, music, and more from a specifically religious perspective. However, to reach those around us, and, equally important, to create a cleaner, more edifying public square, Christians need to use secular tools for their own ends.
Books, movies, and songs can uplift readers, watchers, and hearers even if God is never mentioned. What is needed is not self-consciously Christian art, but good art by self-conscious Christians.
The same principle applies to political involvement.
Government is not a religious enterprise: being President and being Pope involve very different qualifications. Christians who enter the public square must be prepared to do public business. That means working with people who have different, and often radically different, worldviews. A disagreement over ultimate truth does not preclude agreement on temporal ends, however.
Christians who seek civil office most obviously need to be qualified to fulfill the position’s duties. Competence and honesty are not restricted to Christians. In some cases, alas, the most faithful also may be the most inept. In such a case, Martin Luther opined, he would choose the competent Turk over the incompetent Christian.
Of course, Christians should work hard to ensure that we are not left with such a choice. But the fact that a Mark Hatfield or a Jim Wallis view the world very differently than a George W. Bush or a Jerry Falwell demonstrates the danger in suggesting the existence of any sort of godly political agenda. A competent and thoughtful Christian who exhibits godly virtues while holding public office may simultaneously make society a better place and model Christ for unbelievers. But his or her first responsibility in civil government—the role of greatest interest to non-Christians—is the former, helping to meet the community’s practical needs. And how best to do so can be vigorously disputed by equally committed Christians, as well as by believers and non-believers.
Engagement through the family, community, culture, and politics will not be easy. Indeed, concern about the malign influence of liberalism in the first three is one reason many Christians favor a stronger, more intrusive state. Yet democracy no less than capitalism challenges Christianity.
Democracy places sovereignty in people, not God. Democracy presupposes no ultimate truth, leaving basic philosophical principles up to the determination of transient majorities.
Absent strong limits on government power, democracy allows these same majorities—which often are numerical minorities, given the vagaries of the political process—to impose their values on others. Needless to say, in today’s cosmopolitan world, there is no reason to assume that political liberalism will encourage the triumph of Christian values.
Called to faith, not success
Yet just as attempting to suppress economic liberalism through state power is unlikely to lead to a good end, attempting to suppress political liberalism through authoritarian governance is unlikely to lead to a positive end. Good kings and even dictators might exist, but they are far too few for comfort.
Just as it is hard to imagine a better economic system than liberalism, despite its obvious faults, so too it is hard to imagine a better political system than democracy. Which leaves Christians stuck in a liberal world, whatever their frustrations at its many unpleasant manifestations.
In the end, then, even faithful Christians acting through family, community, culture, and politics do not guarantee success. But then, God has not promised us success. He calls us to be faithful, rather than successful. It would be no different in an illiberal society. All have fallen short of God’s glory in every system.
How should Christians live through liberalism? The same as how they should live through traditional or authoritarian societies—modeling Christ’s behavior in their own lives, building Christian institutions, engaging the secular culture, and participating with their neighbors in politics to build a better society. The exact form of involvement will differ depending on the system. But there are no Christian short-cuts, whatever the system. All we can do is be faithful. God must bring the results.